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Last Updated: Friday, 21 January, 2005, 17:44 GMT
Letter: Drugs and the body beautiful
By Tim Egan
New York Times correspondent

New York Times correspondent Tim Egan examines the obsession amongst America's young men for body-enhancing drugs.

He finds that the massive industry is increasingly being built not on the desire to perform better in sport, but simply to acquire an attractive body.

Body building
The desire for a "buff" body is all-consuming amongst some young men
By now, most of us have made some sort of resolution about how we want to look for the new year.

These promises to ourselves - launched from the darkest, most indulgent days of the year - usually involve less flesh, and more muscle and discipline. For most of us, they are forgotten or broken not long after the new calendars go up on the wall.

But for a teenage boy in New Century America, this obsession with looking good has become all-consuming and year-round.

Everyone knows about the epidemic of obesity. This is the other side.

Forget about improvement, these kids want perfection. And for an increasing number of American teenagers, the best way to get a designer frame is from a syringe or a bottle.

Kids want to be "buff" - no word has more power in the gym or the mall. It means hot, or streamlined. They want clean, rippled shoulder lines and perfect pecs.

While drug use has levelled off for many substances, it has soared for the body-bulking compounds.

'Everybody wants to be big'

According to the nation's annual survey of drug use, nearly half a million American teens say they have taken anabolic steroids - defined as hormones which add muscle mass at phenomenal rates. This is double what it was 10 years ago.

And the number may be just as high for steroid precursors, which are over-the-counter products that can have the same effect.

"Everybody wants to be big now," said a high school senior from Davis County, Utah, a boy I met named Zeb Nava.

Mark McGwire
Baseball legend Mark McGwire admitted to using steroid precursor Andro
Zeb and 50 others are in the weight room, pumping iron furiously during third period lifting class at Clearfield High School, in the prosperous sprawl north of Salt Lake City, Utah.

It is a community where giant houses, giant retail stores and giant bodies seem to spring from nowhere. At Clearfield High, body-building is taken as a class, like maths or English literature - and the room is packed at all hours.

"Most people here don't lift for sports," said Zeb. "They do it for girls or they do it for the look."

What has changed now is that the obsession with looking buff at a young age has prompted kids to take extraordinary steps - some even risking jail to get The Look.

In Utah, the courts will return from the New Year break to process a most unusual drug case.

Unlike the routine busts of cocaine rings or shutting down of rural meta-amphetamine labs, this time the drug being peddled was steroids - and the dealers were high school kids.

Three students were caught after returning from Mexico with a van full of illegal steroids and other drugs they had purchased at a veterinary supply store in Tijuana.

The drugs were meant for horses, in the black market shadows of the racing circuit. But they found their way to an overwhelmingly Mormon and Republican middle class community in the heart of Utah.

Law change

A few years ago, baseball player Mark McGwire admitted he was using Andro - the shorthand name for a steroid precursor which mimics male hormones, producing testosterone - in his bid to break the all-time record for most runs in a season.

McGwire looked like a comic book superhero, with a neck the size of a tree trunk and biceps that stretched the limits of his jersey. But he also showed the telltale signs of someone who is on "the juice" - he had bad acne.

Andro is as legal as candy, sold at any mall in America, in any of the fast-growing chains which sell nutritional supplements. And while the labels of these precursors say that people under 18 should not take them, they are marketed under names like "Ripped Fuel" and "Teen Advantage."

Steroid pill
Steroid precursors will soon be illegal without prescription
McGwire has now retired from baseball. Since leaving the game, he looks like he has shrunk by a third. As for his drug of choice, Andro will soon be illegal: as of 20 January, it will be a crime to sell, buy or use steroid precursors without a prescription in the United States.

The ban came after Congress heard a litany of horror stories about kids popping Andro to get big, but ending up with a host of problems, from violent mood swings to hair loss.

But in Utah, many of the young body builders did not want their bulk for speed or sports. They wanted it for simple vanity.

Nationwide, a survey of students aged 12-17 who admitted to taking body-enhancing drugs found that 20% of teens did it because they wanted - and here's that magic word again - to be buff.

Then again, is it any wonder? Reality television shows are mostly about makeovers - of face, body, house or job - that can be done in less time than it takes to grow a new fingernail.

In Utah there was only a vague awareness that anabolic steroids and precursors come with a huge risk, and an inherent irony - doctors say they can cause shrinkage of the testicles, enlargement of male breasts, hair loss, and can signal the body to shut down normal adolescent growth, leading to shortened stature.

Thus, a 16-year-old boy taking "the juice" to get his chest of steel and his arms of oak could end up with stunted growth and female-looking breasts.

Parents in denial

Anabolic steroids have been around for long time, but the growth of supplements is relatively new.

In the United States, it dates to 1994, when Congress passed a landmark law.

Intended to make it easier to sell vitamins and products marketed as keys to natural health, it opened the doors to what is now a $20 billion annual business - the dietary supplement industry.

The body-enhancement part of the industry is a significant part of the overall pie.

Congress inadvertently triggered the booming industry in 1994
And, as long as they make no claims about curing illnesses, the pills, potions and powders of the supplement market are free of federal regulation.

Overall, the dietary supplement industry says that it sells thousands of safe products, which help adults with muscle cramps, injuries and other maladies.

As for the body-changing stuff, they say the products pose no harm as long as children do not take them. The problem is, they clearly do.

Hanging around Utah with the teen body-building set, I could not help but notice the industry that has developed along with the obsession.

Coincidentally or not, one of the biggest promoters of deregulating the dietary supplement industry was a conservative Republican Senator from Utah - Orrin Hatch.

And now his home state, known for its wholesome religious values, has also become the American capital for the booming dietary supplement industry.

A narcotics detective in Utah - Lieutenant Ted Ellison - told me that after he broke up the Tijuana steroid bust, a lot of parents were in denial. But then they started looking around the house, and many found syringes and empty bottles.

"These are good kids," he told me, "from good families, no criminal records, they're the cream of the crop."

The most perplexing thing to parents, he said, was why.

I have a theory. If the adults are busy making money off it or breaking records, why should kids feel ashamed when someone scolds them about remaking their bodies through chemistry?

You don't have to go far to find role models.

Letter is a BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters give their views on the latest political, cultural or social developments in his or her region.


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Body of deceit
02 Sep 04 |  Magazine
'I want to get bigger still'
02 Sep 04 |  Magazine
Steroid 'linked' to brain damage
25 Aug 04 |  Cornwall
US children from 11 'on steroids'
14 Jul 04 |  Americas


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